Ukraine’s Draft Dodgers Face Guilt, Shame and Reproach

CHISINAU, Moldova – Vova Klever, a young and successful fashion photographer from the Ukrainian capital, kyiv, did not see himself in this war.

“Violence is not my weapon,” he said.

Then, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Klever fled, breaking Ukrainian law that prohibits men of military age from leaving the country.

Mr. Klever’s mistake, which would have devastating consequences, was writing to a friend about being smuggled out and arriving in London.

The friend betrayed his trust and posted their conversation on social media. It went viral and Ukrainians all over the internet exploded with anger and resentment.

“You are the walking dead,” read one Twitter message. “I will find you in any corner of the world.”

The notion of people, especially men, leaving war-torn Ukraine to live a safe and comfortable life abroad has sparked a moral dilemma among Ukrainians that becomes one of the most elemental decisions humans can make: fight or flight

Thousands of Ukrainian men of military age have left the country to avoid taking part in the war, according to records from regional law enforcement officials and interviews with people inside and outside Ukraine. Smuggling networks in Moldova, and possibly other European countries, have been doing brisk business. Some people have paid up to $15,000 for a secret overnight trip out of Ukraine, Moldovan officials said.

Draft dodgers are the big exception. That makes it even more complicated for them, morally, socially and practically. Ukrainian society has mobilized for war against a much larger enemy, and countless Ukrainians with no military experience have volunteered for the fight. To maximize its strength, the Ukrainian government has taken the extreme measure of banning men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving, with few exceptions.

All this has forced Ukrainian men who do not want to serve to take illegal routes to Hungary, Moldova and Poland and other neighboring countries. Even among those who were convinced they had fled for the right reasons, some said they felt guilty and ashamed.

“I don’t think I can be a good soldier right now in this war,” said a Ukrainian computer programmer named Volodymyr, who left shortly after the war began and did not want to reveal his last name for fear of repercussions for avoiding service. military. .

“Look at me,” Volodymyr said, as he sat in a pub in Warsaw drinking a beer. “I wear glasses. I’m 46 years old. I don’t look like a classic fighter, a Rambo who can fight Russian troops.”

He took another sip and stared at his glass.

“Yes, I am embarrassed,” he said. “I ran away from this war, and it’s probably my crime.”

Ukrainian politicians have threatened to jail evaders and confiscate their homes. But within Ukrainian society, sentiments are more divided.

The vast majority of refugees are women and children, who have faced little backlash. But that is not the case for young men. What As cities continue to be hit by Russian bombs, many Ukrainians have been unforgiving of draft dodgers.

This is what broke out in the young photographer.

In mid-March, Olga Lepina, who has worked as a model and modeling agent, said Klever sent her husband a message that she had arrived in London.

Her husband replied, “Wow! How?”

“Through Hungary with the smugglers for $5,000,” Klever replied, according to screenshots of the conversation provided by Lepina. “But that’s just between us, shut up!”

Ms. Lepina said that she and Mr. Klever had been friends for years. She even went to her wedding. She had also gone to France with her husband, who is not a Ukrainian citizen. But as the war approached, she said, Klever became intensely patriotic and a bit of an online bully. When he discovered that he had avoided the service, he was so outraged that he posted screenshots of the conversation on Instagram.

“For me it was hypocrisy to leave the country and pay money for this,” he explained. “I just decided to bring it to the public. You have to be responsible for your words.”

Mr. Klever, who is in his 20s, was bombarded with hateful messages, including death threats. Some Ukrainians were upset that he used his wealth to get out and called it a “cheat”.

Responding to emailed questions, Mr. Klever did not deny skipping his service, saying he had poor eyesight and had “been through a lot lately.”

“You can’t even imagine the hate,” he said.

Mr. Klever gave conflicting accounts of exactly how he left the country and declined to provide details. But for many other Ukrainian men, Moldova has become a favorite trapdoor.

Moldova shares a nearly 800-mile border with western Ukraine. And unlike Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, Moldova is not part of the European Union, which means it has far fewer resources to control its borders. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe and has been a center for human trafficking and organized crime.

Within days of the war’s outbreak, Moldovan officials said, Moldovan gangs posted ads on Telegram, a popular messaging service in Eastern Europe, offering to fix cars, even minibuses, to get draft evaders out of conscription.

Law enforcement officials said the typical method was for smugglers and Ukrainians to select a rendezvous point along Moldova’s “green border,” the term used for border areas without fences, and meet up. late at night.

On a recent night, a squad of Moldovan border guards trudged across a flat, endless wheat field, boots sinking in the mud, looking for draft dodgers. There was no border post, just the dim lights of a Ukrainian village and dogs barking in the dark.

Here, one can simply enter and leave Ukraine.

Moldovan officials said that since the end of February they had dismantled more than 20 smuggling networks, including some known criminal enterprises. In turn, they have apprehended 1,091 people crossing the border illegally. They were all Ukrainian men, authorities said.

Once caught, these men have a choice. If they do not want to be returned, they can apply for asylum in Moldova and cannot be deported.

But if they do not apply for asylum, they may be handed over to Ukrainian authorities, who Moldovan officials say have been pressuring them to send them back. The vast majority of those who entered illegally, around 1,000, applied for asylum and fewer than 100 were returned, Moldovan officials said. Two thousand other Ukrainian men who have entered Moldova legally have also applied for asylum.

Volodymyr Danuliv is one of them. He refuses to fight in the war, although it is not the possibility of dying that worries him, he said. is the slaughter.

“I can’t shoot Russians,” said Danuliv, 50.

He explained that his brothers had married Russians and that two of his nephews were serving in the Russian army in the Ukraine.

“How can I fight this war?” she asked. “I could kill my own family.”

Myroslav Hai, an official from Ukraine’s military reserve, admitted: “There are people who evade mobilization, but their participation compared to the volunteers is not that big.” Other Ukrainian officials said men who are ideologically or religiously opposed to the war could serve in other ways, for example as cooks or drivers.

But none of the more than a dozen men interviewed for this article seemed interested. Mr. Danuliv, a businessman from western Ukraine, said that he did not want to participate in the war. When asked if he feared being ostracized or shamed, he shook his head.

“I didn’t kill anyone. That’s what’s important to me,” she said. “I don’t care what people say.”

What happens when the war ends? How much resentment will arise towards those who left? These are questions that Ukrainians, men and women, are beginning to ask.

When Mrs. Lepina embarrassed Mr. Klever, she was no longer in the Ukraine. She too had gone to France. Every day, she said, she struggles with guilt.

“People are suffering in Ukraine and I want to be there to help them, to support them,” he said. “But at the same time I’m safe and I want to be here.”

“It’s a very ambiguous and complicated feeling,” he said.

And she knows she will be judged.

“Of course there will be some people who will divide Ukrainian citizens into those who left and those who stayed,” he said. “I’m ready for it.”

Siergiej Greczuszkin contributed reporting from Warsaw and Daria Mychkovska from Przemysl, Poland.

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